I remember when I first heard that Studio Gobo was handling the Rise Against the Empire play set for Disney Infinity 3.0.
Studio Gobo is, after all, the developer that created the excellent Pirates of the Caribbean play set for the first game. That play set was the biggest and best of that year's sets, with numerous islands to explore, enemies to fight, and huge, wide oceans to sail and wage battle upon in your very own ship. Every nook and cranny was stuffed with things to do, and the level design was full of eye candy.
Another factor was Twilight of the Republic, the fantastic Star Wars play set that came with 3.0's starter pack. Ninja Theory created that wildly fun entry, which was set during the Clone Wars era. So how much better would Studio Gobo's set be, knowing how big and full they make their levels — and that they had the beloved original Star Wars trilogy to work with?!
Needless to say, my expectations were astronomical.
Rise Against the Empire takes place across three primary worlds, and they're gloriously huge and thought-out. As with most Disney Infinity Playsets, gameplay is a mixture of story missions and side quests, which help flesh out the world and level-up those shiny new characters you just bought. Leveling them up is genuinely fun, too, as you get to pick what abilities you want to use and upgrade.
The story missions are the meat of the game, and for the most part, it really does feel like you're doing things that matter. You get to take part in some of the most famous setpieces from the movies, like the garbage-smasher escape, the trench run, the AT-AT takedown on Hoth, the climactic fight between Luke, Vader and the Emperor, and more.
The key thing to remember about Disney Infinity is that you're playing with virtual toys. You're not meant to believe in its characters, weapons, vehicles or settings as real-world things. You're basically a kid playing with toys in a giant toy box, so everything has a plastic, imaginative feel to it. While certain sounds and designs must come across as authentic, there's plenty of freedom for your creativity to run wild, too.
The trick is finding the balance between devotion to the source material and capturing that childlike sense of "anything can happen." So the story missions tend to deviate from established canon (more on that later), but are uniformly fun and engaging. The side missions offer a strong variety of puzzling, fighting, gathering, rescuing, escorting, and more, all of which are great fun. But there's one on Hoth that has you pick up Rebels and throw them into an escape ship; it's so absurd you'll either laugh your head off or spew profanities at your TV. (But kids will love it.)
There are some superb vehicle races, dogfights in space, timed events and more, and it's all family-friendly — yet exciting enough to keep mom and dad engaged.
The visuals are in line with the rest of Disney Infinity's aesthetic, but Studio Gobo did a fantastic job of bringing these familiar surroundings to life with plenty of details worth exploring. For example, Tatooine centers around Mos Eisley, where the Cantina is open for business (with your help), along with other assorted buildings around town. A Sand Crawler slowly circles the city, and Jabba's Palace is right down the road, with the Sarlac and Jabba's Sail Barge out beyond that. (Those last locales two were included even though you don't get to play those scenes.)
It's in the little things that Rise Against the Republic shines, but you have to take the time to appreciate them. There are touches of easter egg humor to be found, such as a certain despised Gungan frozen in Carbonite and hanging in Jabba's Palace. The villagers have some hilarious dialogue if you stop and hear what they have to say. Listen closely in Jabba's Palace (once he finally stops talking — man, does that slug love to gab) and you'll hear the faint roar of the Rancor down below.
The vehicles are one of the Playset's finest features. Hoth gives you plenty of fun missions requiring you to fly around in a Snowspeeder, Endor lets you play in AT-STs (also lovingly known as "Chicken Walkers") and Speeder Bikes, and you can even take part in a Skyhopper race through Beggar's Canyon on Tatooine. In space, you fly the legendary X-Wing or Millennium Falcon starships. Every vehicle is refined to handle exactly like you'd expect the real thing to. The audio effects add enormously to the feeling, with each vehicle sounding exactly the way it should. There's really nothing quite like pulling the trigger on the Falcon to make it go faster, and hearing that one-of-a-kind hum kick in.
The real-life figures live up to Infinity's reputation for high-quality toys, with great detailing and whimsical takes on the classic Star Wars characters of Luke, Leia, Han, Chewbacca and Darth Vader. Each one has their own abilities and moves inside the game. Unsurprisingly, Luke is the most versatile, able to both wield a lightsaber and shoot a blaster. He's also the only hero that gets Force Jump, enabling him to reach higher spaces much easier.
Appropriately, Darth Vader is the most powerful character you can play as, stalking his way around the Playset with malice. When he strikes an enemy with his red lightsaber, you can feel how hard he's hitting. He can throw it with great precision, too. Han is a whiz with his distinctive blaster, but he also knows his way around some fisticuffs. Leia has her own blaster as well, and just for the heck of it, she's also quite skilled in hand-to-hand combat, kicking and leaping around like a kung-fu master. Chewie is a brawler, smashing anyone that gets in his way, and shooting the rest with his bowcaster. Each one has unique moves and animations all their own, and they're all made with great love and attention.
It's worth noting that where Twilight of the Republic starred the voice talents of the cast from the animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars TV series, Rise Against the Empire features sound-a-likes — some of which work out better than others. The actor portraying Lando is so nails-on-chalkboard bad, it's like he's trying to do a Billy Dee Williams impression after having never actually heard Billy Dee Williams speak.
Without a doubt, the narrative is where Rise Against the Empire should shine brightest. It's got the benefit of the entire original Star Wars trilogy to play with, a saga that's beloved by generations of fans (and can be recited from memory by many of them). So the story should write itself, with all of the appropriate "wow" moments and nostalgia in tow.
Sadly, the story is the one area of Rise Against the Empire that disappoints. For reasons unknown, Studio Gobo decided to condense the story of the trilogy so that it takes place (almost) entirely on just three planets — Tatooine, Hoth, and Endor. That's one for each movie. (You also get to briefly visit both Death Stars.) Logistically, it's understandable that some abridging would be required, otherwise you'd have a game that's way beyond the scope of a Disney Infinity play set. And I'm sure budget and time factors came into play as well.
But are you really prepared to watch the "I am your father" moment, the most pivotal scene in the entire trilogy, moved from Bespin to the frozen Rebel hideout on Hoth, where a crowd of onlookers watches Luke and Vader interact? Or how about being first introduced to Lando as the Rebellion's representative on Endor?
You'll find no Yavin, Dagobah or Bespin anywhere in this game. The loss of Bespin is felt the most, as so many critical moments from Empire Strikes Back occur there. And the complete absence of Yoda is just criminal; of course, you can play as him if you own the toy figure, but he's nowhere to be found in the story.
Studio Gobo decided to incorporate all four playable heroes into the full storyline, so that the story still makes sense when you switch between them. That means that every single cutscene in the game stars all four characters working together, and obviously that changes things. A lot. (But if you can play as Vader, who isn't in the cutscenes, then why do all the others have to be present in every single one?)
So for example, Han, Chewie and Luke are inexplicably present on the Tantive IV when Leia records her message for Obi-Wan. I get why some things had to be condensed this way, but narratively, Studio Gobo lost an enormous amount of what makes Star Wars so special and memorable. You never get to see the three main characters meet for the first time. Han's torture and Carbonite-freezing on Bespin is completely absent, so Leia never confesses her love to him. Luke never learns anything about the Force from Yoda. The group never comes to Han's rescue and destroys Jabba's sail barge. And so on.
So much thought and love went into making Rise Against the Empire; you need only look at the incredible level design and variety of missions to see that. So why were so many all-important moments from the trilogy treated as afterthoughts — or outright ignored?
Will you enjoy Rise Against the Empire? Depends on your expectations. If you're looking for a by-the-books play-through of the original Star Wars trilogy that fits your memories and holds everything reverential that you do, then you're going to be disappointed. But if you can approach it for what it is — virtual play time with actual toys come to life thanks to your own imagination — you'll find plenty of fun to be had.
Personally, my expectations were met with the quality of gameplay and level design. But when trying to follow the story, all I could focus on was what's not there.